WINTER HAVEN – The challenge of rising the occasion when you want sometimes can be the most challenging thing in sports to cope with.
With a chance to win a state title Saturday, the Jensen Beach volleyball team didn’t allow the moment to get them – they thrived off it.
A senior-laden Falcon team controlled the 5A state championship match from the start, earning a three-set sweep of Barron Collier at Polk State College with senior and Furman signee Lindsay Walch securing the program’s fifth state championship in 19 years with a final kill.
“We picked a great day to have a great day,” Jensen Beach head coach Mike Sawtelle said. “We played the game about as good as we could have.”
Experience for Jensen Beach on the court with their senior class mattered more than they could have imagined trying to make amends for what they couldn’t do as sophomores.
Then led by star Naiya Sawtelle, the daughter of Mike Sawtelle, Jensen Beach fell short to a talented Ponte Vedra team in three sets in Fort Myers.
With the likes of Walch and then sophomore Lauren Duke along with a freshman setter in Raegan Richardson, the start of the match to them two years on didn’t feel any bigger than they needed it to.
“We all talked about, we have been to the state finals sophomore year so knowing that we all came into this saying, we have to control the energy and the pace of the game,” Duke said. “So knowing that going into it, that gave us a 1-up over Barron Collier because we knew we to get to get our fans here, had to get everyone up on the bench, everyone on the court going to give us the motivation on the court.”
A large contingent traveled from Jensen Beach and had much to cheer about early in the opening set.
Walch’s ace gave the Falcons (29-3) a 12-5 advantage and the senior dominated the end of the set with kills from all over the court to help Jensen Beach hold the lead throughout.
Senior Haley Handlen powered down a kill down the middle of the court to give the Falcons the first set 25-18.
Barron Collier, who entered without dropping a set since a five-set win on Oct. 12 against Gulf Coast, played a tighter second set.
With Jensen Beach leading 10-8, the Falcons were able to get some daylight opening up a 18-12 lead on a Walch kill.
Jensen Beach continued their momentum and grabbed a two-set lead with a 25-15 second set triumph punctuated by an ace from senior Sabine Rudolph.
With the Cougars (19-6) fighting to stay alive, Barron Collier held a 13-11 lead midway through the third set but Jensen Beach fought back.
Two straight kills from Walch gave the Falcons a 15-13 edge and Jensen Beach held slim leads throughout to hold onto to their advantage late.
Barron Collier had a chance to tie the set at 22-all but a serve into the net gave Jensen Beach the cushion they needed and at set point to win the championship, the Falcons knew who they were going to set up to finish the job.
Walch, who watched her older sisters Elise and Nicole each win state titles as stars as Martin County as a child, leapt high off the left side and rose to meet Richardson’s set to capture a moment she’s craved since missing out on a title two years ago.
“I felt when I went sophomore year, I felt a lot of pressure and I felt intimidated,” Walch said. “This year, I felt very calm and I wanted to get it done. Right from the beginning, I established that right from the start and I think it was a great feeling to go out with in my senior year.”
A key to Jensen Beach’s success all season has been their efficiency with serving and Saturday was perhaps the Falcons’ best performance in that category.
The Falcons only had seven service errors, keeping balls in play and allowing their rotations to do the job.
With the likes of Duke and junior Catherine Hamilton moving all around the court, Jensen Beach’s seniors all did their part surrounding Richardson initiating the attack.
Sawtelle in his study of Barron Collier felt that Saturday’s match would come down to who won at the net defensively to get the other team to alter its aggressiveness and led by senior Kiosha Smith’s eight blocks, Jensen Beach had the upper hand.
“We felt that the team that had the better blocking day would win the match,” Sawtelle said. “That frontline, all these girls in our frontline set the tone and it got in (Barron Collier’s heads) and allowed us to take advantage.”
Handlen added six blocks and Walch had five blocks on a stat sheet that had production from everyone for the Falcons.
Walch’s 17 kills were backed up 10 from Duke and seven from Handlen. Senior libero Sophia Gannascoli had nine digs and Hamilton added six digs and in the middle of everything for Jensen Beach was Richardson, who finished with 31 assists.
One of the lone returners next year for the Falcons, Richardson relished the chance to play with her best friends one final time and felt much at ease this time around in a state final compared to when she was in the same scenario as a freshman two years ago.
“It helped a lot, especially being on that big stage, Richardson said. “That gym we went to when I was a freshman, we were talking about it, it was very overwhelming. I felt like experiencing that and being prepared for that helped me stay calm today.”
For Sawtelle, overseeing a program of excellence that played in its seventh state final and has gone to 10 Final Fours in 19 years, Saturday marked the first state title for the program since 2015.
Knowing he had the team to make a run to add to the trophy collection at the school’s gymnasium, seeing the work his girls put into being ready for the moment was as satisfying as it gets for a coach.
“It’s a gift, it really is,” Sawtelle said about how his girls met the moment. “We’ve had a lot of good teams that have come close that fell short. This group is such a close group, they work together, they hang out together, they do a lot of things at school together. I’ve been in seasons where players didn’t come together. This team did. They did in 2020. We just hoped it would end they way we wanted to and it did. We’re blessed.”
Bryan Cooney is a high school sports reporter at TCPalm, part of the USA TODAY Network. You can reach him at [email protected] and also on Twitter at @Bryspann_Cooney.